Monday, June 19, 2006

A canon lawyer responds

In our May 31st post on "Kneeling at Mass a mortal sin in Diocese of Orange, CA," you may recall we dealt with the case of the notorious Fr. Tran who declared kneeling at Mass (specifically for the Agnus Dei) a mortal sin in a parish that had hitherto been a Tridentine Rite parish. In the combox to that post, Fr. I-am-the-"Spirit"-of-Vatican-II O'Leary responded with his usual enthusiasm for steering the dialogue in his own direction (not always a bad thing, though usually annoying and sometimes in violation of 'Da Rulz') by writing the following:
Pb, this is merely one priest. But what of Popes who tell people that what they are doing is mortally sinful when it is not? In that case, does the papal decree, even if mistaken, make the matter mortally sinful?

I am thinking, of course, of the decrees against usury in the 16th century, which made normal banking practices we now find totally innocent a mortal sin meriting excommuniction.

I am also thinking of Humanae Vitae. On the Pelikan thread, you told me a competent canon lawyer can explain why the bulls against lending at interest have not the same authority as Humanae Vitae. Can you give a link to such a lawyer? Can you explain why the three solemn bulls of Pius V and Sixtus IV were not as solemn and authoritative as the encyclical of Paul VI?

Perhaps you will say that the theologians got around those bulls by declaring them part of positive papal law rather than permanent natural law -- but this is a ploy that runs against the letter of the bulls, much as the Canadian bishops' reception of Humanae Vitae as a papal opinion that Catholics were free to follow or not as they chose runs counter to the letter of the encyclical. It is hard to see how the 16th century popes could have made it any clearer that they were determining a disputed point of natural law.

The point is that even the most solemn utterances of the papacy on moral matters have been corrected by laity's and theologians' non-reception. Development moves in the direction of deepening moral insight, as JP2 stresses, but there are a lot of bumps on the way! (Comment source)
So I wrote to a priest friend of mine with an advanced degree in canon law, Fr. John T. Putnam. Unfortunately, most canon lawyers are kept extremely busy in their diocesan tribunals where they hear cases two or three days a week, but Fr. Putnam referred the question to another source in our Diocese of Charlotte, who furnished a link to the Encyclopedia of Catholicism article on 'Usury' and commented as follows:
As for the priest in the Diocese of Orange (Fr. Tran) declaring kneeling at Mass (specifically for the Agnus Dei) a mortal sin, he has since then "retracted" his statement. The Diocese of Orange, in typical fashion -- and much like the confusion so regnant here in Charlotte -- both supported his declaration on mortal sin as well as his retraction. (I suppose then that Fr. Tran could announce just about anything, followed by its contradiction, and receive diocesan support each time; such is the honor among thieves... er uh, liberals.)

It would seem to me, however, that the faithful of the Diocese of Orange are indeed obliged to stand for the Agnus Dei -- if I understand the Rome-approved norms for this point in the Mass. I've read, too, though, that the people have also been instructed to stand for the Eucharistic Prayer, an "instruction" that should be "disobeyed," since it is contrary to the mind of the Church.

As to usury and its comparison to Humanae vitae: the dissident priest makes a false analogy. Because the papal bulls against usury were obviously conditioned by the times and circumstances in which they were promulgated does not at all take away their supreme authority at the time of their application. That is, economic circumstances change, and at the time of the Popes mentioned [by him], usury was the means of ruining any number of people, especially the poor. And such avarice on the part of lenders is seriously sinful. Times have changed; yet I would not say, quoting from [his comment], "normal banking practices we now find totally innocent," for we Catholics do not find them so. Justice still needs be applied. But when it comes to contraception, here we are dealing not with time-related variables, but with the constancy of human nature and the essence of the sexual act -- constants, not variables (as with economics and banking practices).

To quote from the above linked article [on usury]: "The precise question then is this: if we consider justice only, without reference to extrinsic circumstances, can the loan of money, or any chattel which is not destroyed by use, entitle the lender to a gain or profit which is called interest? To this question some persons, namely the economists of the classic school, and some Catholic writers, answer 'yes, and always'; others, namely Socialists and some Catholic writers, answer, 'no, never'; and lastly some Catholics give a less unconditional answer, 'sometimes, but not always'; and they explain the different attitudes of he Church in condemning at one time, and at another authorizing, the practice of taking interest on loans, by the difference of circumstances and the state of society."

And, yes, the Popes of the 16th century were indeed "determining a disputed point of natural law"; for they were judging it against nature to ruin one's neighbor -- easily done during that time (just read the history of the Jews in Europe) -- by making a living off interest. The Popes' authority in condemning this is not diminished nor to be seen as lacking infallibility, simply because with the changing of the times and with economic circumstances, loaning at interest became something far less likely to ruin one's neighbor, but became far more regulated, as well as the rights of protection being recognized for the one making the risk of loans. This change of circumstances (with deepening understanding of economics and justice in the market place) with the attendant change of the Church in these matters does not at all relativise the Church's position on contraception. That's simply a non sequitur.
The 'Usury' article answers the question why the Medieval ecclesiastical decrees on usury cannot be considered infallible. The reason it offers is that the decree (Pope Benedict XIV's Encyclical "Vix pervenit" of 1745) was initially addressed only to Italian bishops to address a local problem (essentially of loan sharks), and therefore not an infallible decree. Hence, even when it was later applied to the whole Church by the Holy Office in 1836, this did not and could not change the original matter of the decree so as to have rendered it infallible. There are other grounds, too, on which medieval usury teaching can't be considered infallibe, as I have addressed elsewhere in the relevant comboxes, but this should suffice for here.

Will any of these arguments -- from canon lawyers and Catholic Encyclopedia -- satisfy Fr. I-AM-the-"Spirit"-of-Vatican-II O'Leary? You can be your sweet patooties they won't, because very little of this has anything to do with rationality and has everything to do with sweet patooties.